‘This is what’s left’: Fairfax journos down tools amid threats and fear
There’s the usual number of Fairfax newspapers today, but not the usual number of bylines. More than 600 Fairfax staff across the country are on strike, after the company announced it was sacking most of its photographers and half of its remaining subeditors, along with 15 lifestyle journalists. Not turning up to work this morning are journalists from The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Canberra Times, The Newcastle Herald and the Illawarra Mercury.
Between 100 and 150 staff were milling on the lawn outside Media House, where Fairfax’s major Melbourne bureaux are located and the home of The Age, just after the walkout was announced. I asked a senior Age journalist, “is that everyone?” He shrugged his shoulders. “There were 500 people working here a few years ago,” he said, surveying the gathering. “This is what’s left.”
But it wasn’t everyone. While the “vast bulk” of staff from The Age and SMH walked out en masse, from the top to the new cadets just two weeks into the job, only the unionised half of The Australian Financial Review joined them. The Fin will share the cuts in photography — MEAA delegate and SMH journalist Stuart Washington said “surprising levels” of staff at the more conservative paper are also not at their desks today.
In a public statement, Fairfax expressed disappointment with those who had gone on strike:
“The company had commenced a meaningful consultation process about the proposed changes and has planned further briefings with affected employees and their representatives.”
The internal email sent to staff was more forceful. Allen Williams, the managing director of publishing media at Fairfax, reminded staff that industrial action during the period of an industrial agreement was not protected, and given the “unnecessary disruption” to the business caused by the strikers, “we want to make the company’s position very clear”. The position is that, in addition to docking the legally required minimum of four hours’ pay for the action:
“… the company will also consider taking disciplinary action against those employees who participate in any unlawful action, which may include the termination your employment. There is no difference between participating in an unlawful strike and simply not attending for work without a proper reason. We consider both examples to be an unauthorised absence, damaging to your mastheads and a breach of your legal duties to the company.”
Furthermore, Williams continued, “employees should not feel intimidated or pressured into taking industrial action”.
As executives hurled off emails, the staff gathered on the Media House lawn were quiet, and sad. One journalist asked when the cuts would stop. “It’ll be Epicure next,” she said. “Where’s the line?”
There’s not much to be said. In 2012, Crikey described the rallies to protest against Fairfax redundancies as boisterous. That wasn’t our experience yesterday. Most of the journalists assembled were on their phones, standing wordlessly in small huddles, scanning the condolences and messages of solidarity pouring in. Or they were dialed in, presumably to journalists at other news outlets keen for comment. I asked a few whether they’d filed for the day. Most hadn’t. “There’ll be a paper tomorrow, but it won’t be as good,” one said, grinning wryly.
Up the front, the photographers were talking to the media. There were several TV crews assembled filming the 10 or so snappers gathered — once the redundancies are done, there could be that number for the whole of Fairfax.
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